Stephen C. Foster

Stephen Foster is one of America’s Greatest songwriters and composers, being the first person in the United States to make a living in the U.S. selling their compositions. His famous works include Oh! Susanna, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Old Folks at Home, Swanee River, Beautiful Dreamer, and Camptown Races. He wrote music in various musical and regional styles but is best known for his vocal and piano settings. Foster's plantation songs, including My Old Kentucky Home, were and still are a point of controversy due to their degrading depictions of African Americans and use of blackface during performances. During this era performances in blackface were common in less reputable establishments such as saloons, often depicting African Americans in a degrading manner. In 1850 he met Charles Shiras, an anti-slavery advocate and poet, who greatly influenced his perspective of slavery in America.[1] The plantation songs were written over the course of the next three years, each empathetic to the abolitionist cause. 

Sheet music for My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night from MPAL's Historic US Sheet Music Collection

The Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850, strengthened the divide between proslavery southerners and northern abolitionists by forcing active participation in the capture and return of fugitive slaves by federal marshals. The Fugitive Slave Act along with witnessing slave auctions, in which family members were sold to different plantation owners, inspired the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book greatly influenced Foster’s plantation songs, with his most popular song, “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” written about the character and themes of the novel. The text of the original song depicts the separation of Uncle Tom from his family as he is taken “down the river” to be sold and his family escapes the Kentucky plantation heading north towards freedom.

Broadside ballad of My Good Ould Irish Home from the MPAL Special Collections

In Foster’s manuscripts the chorus originally read “Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good Night,” which was eventually replaced by “My Old Kentucky Home Goodnight,” to reach a broader audience.[2] Foster wanted the white audience watching the performance to empathize with the slaves that he was depicting by asking performers to act reverently while singing.[3] Foster’s Plantation Songs were integrated into the Foster Theatre’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin November of 1853, which appeared “to stir up sympathy for the negro slaves, give offense to the people of the south, and bring into disrepute the institution of slavery.”[4] This was the last minstrel song that Foster produced for many years due to their association with proslavery sentiments.

Broadside ballad of The Good Ould Irish Home  from the MPAL Special Collections

In the mid nineteenth century concert saloons and music halls were being reformed of booze and scantily dressed waitresses into upstanding establishments for variety shows. One of the popular types of songs at these shows were parody songs, which took the melody of a well-known composition and would set new text to the work. While many of these songs had comedic undertones, Phil Gannon’s parody, “My Good Ould Irish Home,” depicts an Irish Immigrant who longs for his homeland.[5] During the nineteenth century the Irish were driven out of Ireland due to famine and sociopolitical hardships. As the Irish arrived in America on coffin ships, they were met with anti-Irish and anti-Catholic discrimination. Although the Irish did find a longer life expectancy and better opportunities in America, they still longed for the home they left behind. Gannon must have found similar sentiments in “My Old Kentucky Home,” inspiring him to write the parody.

Sheet music for My Good Ould Irish Home

My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight My Good Old Irish Home

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay,
The corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,  While the birds make music all the day;
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright,
By’n-by Hard Times comes a knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky Home, good-night!

Weep no more my lady, Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky Home,
For the old Kentucky Home far away.

They hunt no more for the possum and the coon,
On the meadow, the hill and the shore,
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon, 
On the bench by the old cabin door;
The day goes by like the shadow o’er the hart, 
With sorrow where all was delight;
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky Home, good-night!


The head must bow and the back will bend,
Wherever the darkey may go,
A few more days and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar canes grow;
A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, ‘twill never be light,
A few more days til we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky Home, goodnight.


Och my heart still years for my good ould irish Home
Thought grieving may all be in vain,
Bad luck til the day that I ever thought to roam,
For I’ll never see my couuthry again.
Methinks I can see my own little cabin door-
The thought make my poor bosom swell,
But sad is my fate -- I will never see it more --
So my good ould Irish home, fare thee well.

Thin spake no more of comfort; oh spake no more I pray,
For my heart still turns to the home I’ve left behind,
To my poor, but happy home far away.

I’ll sit no more by the bright and blazing fire
Where the praties were boiling so rare;
I’ll toil no more till my limbs begin to tire,
With my heart rint with sorrow and care.
But the thought will come like a dhrame unto my mind,
And whisper so softly, yet plain,
“Och, Paddy, forget not the home you’ve left behind,
Thought you may never behould it again.”


Oh, my country, I love, thought it never may be free,
But still ‘tis my country the same,
The time may come when ‘twill gain its liberty,
Tin Ireland may be proud of its name.
But fate has decreed, and my heart must be resigned,
Though tears from my eyelids may swell;
Och, a few more prayers for the home I’ve left behind,
Thin my good ould Irish home, fare thee well.


[1] JoAnne O’Connell, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster: A Revealing Portrait of the Forgotten Man behind “Swanee River,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “My Old Kentucky Home”, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) 149 – 150.

[2] O’Connell, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, 161.

[3] O’Connell, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, 159.

[4] O’Connell, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, 166.

[5] O’Connell, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, 294.